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Why the Barbican makes a compelling setting for a novel

Image of the Barbican by Max Whitehead

When I started writing my psychological suspense novel, The Night Village, about a new mother and her strange houseguest, I pictured the story unfolding in my old flat in Hackney. And then, in the same way a dream will suddenly shift location, my characters were all somehow living at the Barbican Estate in central London. Apparently you should trust your obsessions when writing, and the Barbican has always puzzled me – along with many others, I suspect – because on some level, despite its soaring ambition, it doesn’t always work.

A landmark of Brutalist architecture, it’s an estate of some 2,000 apartments, in the heart of the London’s financial district, with three looming tower blocks and a famed cultural centre at its heart. The landscaping is pared back to symmetrical ponds and vast expanses of brick paving, the balconies have curved balustrades of rain-stained concrete deep enough to sit on, and the apartments are warm and sealed and quiet, and sell for millions to architects and magazine editors and well-heeled London creatives. It was home to Australian writer Clive James and is rumoured to be the inspiration for JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, High Rise.

Designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon architects and completed in 1976 on a World War Two bombsite, it’s also famously difficult to navigate. Anyone who has tried to see a movie or performance at the Barbican Centre will know the rising panic of careering down deserted walkways and dead-ending in locked stairwells with Residents Only signs before bursting into the buzzing foyer of the arts centre, sweaty and bewildered. I’ve even heard of a man stumbling onto the stage of a Shakespeare performance in a failed bid to find his seat. On a grey afternoon in mid-winter the place can feel downright post-apocalyptic. As a setting for a novel about a sleep-deprived and isolated new mother, it was filled with dramatic potential.

The Night Village opens with my main character, Simone, bringing her newborn son home to the Barbican apartment owned by her boyfriend, Paul, an urbane Londoner she’s known for one year. A few weeks later, Paul’s cousin Rachel turns up.

I have a clear memory of Rachel appearing at the door, eyes averted, walking into the apartment and simply staying. I didn’t know what she wanted from Simone and her baby, and it took many drafts until I found out.

As Simone fights rising unease and sleep deprivation, the apartment walls start to close in. The bleak winter setting, the lack of community and the isolation of early motherhood, far from her Australian family, all heighten her isolation.

When writing The Night Village I wanted to explore how architecture can favour the able-bodied and unencumbered, and how landscapes – both interior and exterior – can feel threatening when you have to navigate them with a tiny baby. You get the impression that the architects who designed the Barbican didn’t spend much time looking after small children. It may be a lofty masterpiece of Brutalism, but it’s not a place that embraces its inhabitants, least of all its more vulnerable ones. The brick courtyards are unsuited to ball games, the walkways are deserted and spooky, and a toddler could tumble silently into one of those Instagrammable green pools and drown in minutes. Simone doesn’t meet, or even hear, her neighbours through the soundproofed walls, and the men who guard the front desk of her tower block never acknowledge her as she passes them.

If I were writing an architectural history of the Barbican I would be more reverent and detached, but a novel is not about the architectural merits of a place, it’s about how that place makes its characters feel. The beauty of writing a novel is that you can follow your intuition, home in atmosphere and the smallest details to hopefully bring a building or street or city to life for your readers. As I tackled my first draft on sweltering summer afternoons in Perth, Australia, it was wonderful to escape to the northern hemisphere in my imagination – to summon up the overheated rooms, bare winter landscapes and milky light. With the help of real estate websites, Google maps and YouTube I retraced my steps, identified street names and bus routes, and even wandered through apartment interiors for inspiration.

Making a building a character is a hallmark of gothic novels – look at Manderley, Hill House, Wuthering Heights and even Foxworth Hall. It’s not a new trick, but by finding the right building it’s one you can make your own. I had a lot of fun wandering around the Barbican when geography and two young kids meant a real-life visit was out of the question – and when you are working on something as long as a novel, it’s worth making it fun however you can.

In a strange way, setting a novel in the Barbican has made me fonder of the place.  Sometimes a place captures your imagination not because it’s beautiful, but because it’s intriguing. The Barbican is a unique development, worshipped by design fans worldwide. But it’s also a little sinister and disorienting and weird. It’s easy to imagine people hiding from the world there, or hiding from themselves.

Buy The Night Village from Fremantle Press, your local bookshop, Booktopia, Kindle or Audible

The Barbican also made it onto this stunning cover by Nada Backovik

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